BWW Interview: Paul Gordon of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Makes the Works of Jane Austen Sing
Tony-nominated composer Paul Gordon is one of those rare musical theater creators who, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, can write the whole show - book, music and lyrics. Gordon's latest work is the musical "Pride and Prejudice" soon to start its world premiere run at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. He has formed a close relationship with the company over the years, including hit productions of his shows "Jane Eyre," "Emma," "Being Earnest," and "Daddy Long Legs." Interestingly, Gordon initially found success as a composer of pop music writing for, and collaborating with, numerous recording artists, including Bette Midler, Quincy Jones, Alanis Morissette, Smokey Robinson and Dionne Warwick. An abiding love for musical theater led to a fortuitous meeting with esteemed director John Caird that opened up a whole new career for Gordon. BroadwayWorld caught up with him while he was still in the thick of the rehearsal process for his new show, which can be a very stressful time. In conversation, Gordon appeared surprisingly calm as he chatted about the development of "Pride and Prejudice" and his plans to build new audiences for musical theater.
Let's talk about "Pride & Prejudice." What drew you to the source material as a good candidate for musicalization?
I had previously adapted two other Jane Austen novels, "Emma" in 2007 and I believe I started working on "Sense and Sensibility" around 2012. I've always wanted to musicalize "Pride and Prejudice" and I'm glad it was the third one I chose because in many ways it's very different from "Emma" and "Sense and Sensibility" and yet in some ways it's sort of a combination of both.
Given that this is your third time adapting Jane Austen, what is it about her work that resonates so deeply with you?
Aside from the fact that she's just a brilliant writer and novelist, I find that her ideas, her reflections of society are very contemporary. I'm enjoying the character of Elizabeth Bennet immensely as I feel that she represents a sort of modern heroine. I was very drawn to her strength, to her fierce sense of self and her journey of personal evolution.
When it's just you alone writing the whole show - book, music and lyrics - where do you start? What's your way in?
Well, if I'm adapting a novel, my first task is to read the novel and really familiarize myself with the source material, and that just involves a lot of work. I tend to highlight sections of the novel that I think I might want to look back at later, but my first go-through is really trying to hold myself back from writing because I want to know the big picture before I jump in. Then I go back to the beginning and start scene by scene. I do the book work first because I feel like you need that as a foundation. I know that the script may evolve and change, but I try to just get out my ideas of what the characters are saying, what should happen in the scene and see if there even exists a song in this moment because I don't always know and I'll look at that later. So - first I read the novel, then I start to map out the book and then I add the music, but I go scene by scene.
Musical theater is known as the ultimate collaborative art form. In this case, since you're writing the whole thing, how do you get perspective on your own work when you don't have a partner you're bouncing things off of?
Truthfully in the writing process, I really don't have anyone to bounce anything off of. I'm really doing it on my own, and I'm just using my own judgment and sensibility as I go. Of course, once you go into a workshop situation like we had with "Pride & Prejudice" last year, and now that I'm in the rehearsal room, suddenly I have many collaborators, and it's completely different and it's wonderful. Of course, Robert Kelley, my director, is a major collaborator, but so is my music team. And yesterday I came to the two leading actors playing Elizabeth and Darcy - they're just very smart people. I had a problem with one of the scenes we were working on and asked for their input. I said, "This isn't working. As the actor, what do you feel is missing in this moment? What can I do to help?" And they had wonderful thoughts and ideas. I took that, went to another room and did a rewrite, came back, we got to play the scene out and it worked way better. It's that kind of collaboration that I thrive on in the rehearsal period. But you are correct, during the writing period if I'm doing book, lyrics and music myself, it's pretty much just me. Once in a while I may play a song for someone, but really nobody knows what's going on in terms of the development, other than myself, until I get into the rehearsal room with other actors and creators.
You're now only about two weeks out from the start of public performances. At this point, is the show pretty well set, or are you someone who makes major changes to the script and score right up to opening night?
I will make whatever changes are necessary through opening night. I think yesterday I made what I'm hoping is one of the last big changes, but today we're starting another week, we're gonna do more nuancing, and I may change my mind. Now, once we're in the theater and have a run-through with costumes and sets, something else may appear that we didn't see in the rehearsal room. That said, however, with previews for regional productions, you're really just trying to perfect what you've done in the rehearsal room. It's not really an opportunity to make drastic changes because you don't have time to let it settle in. When you're doing a show on Broadway and you're in previews for three weeks to a month, that's really your opportunity to work on the show in front of an audience. We were able to do some of that work in the workshop last year where we had performances, then five days in between to work on the show, and then do it again in front of an audience. In this situation, we'll have an invited dress, we'll be able to make some tweaks, but really I think we're creating the show that you're gonna see over these next two weeks.
So you already workshopped this at TheatreWorks. What did that involve?
The workshop was done by TheatreWorks in their New Works Festival program, which "Emma" was a part of back in 2007. They do it every year and it's a wonderfully innovative process for writers and composers and directors. We got to work on the show for a few weeks and do audience performances, but the brilliance of this workshop is that they give you three or four days to do rewrites and then work with the cast on the changes, and then you do it again. The public can attend these workshops and in fact give feedback. I have pages and pages of audience feedback from people who are part of TheatreWorks. So I got a lot of notes, and had to make decisions - Does this note resonate? Do I wanna make this change? Yeah that note resonates. Maybe this one doesn't, maybe I keep it the way it is.
This is the fifth show you've done with TheatreWorks. How did you originally connect with them?
TheatreWorks was the first company to do a professional, regional production of "Jane Eyre" after it closed on Broadway. Robert Kelley contacted me and said, "Hey, we're doing 'Jane Eyre.' Would you like to come see it?" I said, "Sure" and they flew me in and put me up, and honestly I was so impressed with the production that I fell in love with this company. They invited me back when they heard I was writing "Emma" and accepted it in their New Works Festival. We worked on it and eventually did the production and the relationship was formed between myself, Robert Kelley, Phil Santora and everybody at TheatreWorks that has supported my work over these last many years.
You've worked a lot with Robert Kelley, who's in his final season as Artistic Director. What have you learned from working with Kelley?
Kelley's just a fantastic collaborator. His strength, I think, is dramaturgical. He understands storytelling in a very specific way that aligns with the way that I like to tell story. And we're very good with each other in that I allow him to do his job and he allows me to do my job, but we are very open to hearing each other's opinions about our jobs. I think what I've learned from him is the power of collaboration, the power of patience, and really the gift of community, creating a show with the community, and the loyalty that TheatreWorks has shown to its artists over the years. I greatly respect loyalty, and I like working with the same actors again, should I have a good experience with them the first time. I just believe in the vision of what TheatreWorks has done in terms of getting theater out into the world in front of more eyes, and sharing it with a vast community.
You were nominated for a 2001 Tony Award for Best Original Score for "Jane Eyre" and the show itself received several other nominations including Best Musical. What are your memories of Tony night that year?
Ugh! Well, it was both fun and horrifying. Honestly I went in knowing "The Producers" was going to sweep all the awards so even though I had prepared a little speech, I knew I was never going to have to give it. So I guess the good news for me is I was fairly relaxed [laughs]. We were hoping for one award which was Marla Schaffel for Best Actress which she did not get and I still feel very profoundly that she deserved. That was disappointing because it might have kept the show open longer. But I was very honored obviously to have been nominated and it's been helpful in my career. So it was really exciting - except when I had to go to the loser party afterwards. I literally went to a party and it was a couple of people that were the losers just sort of standing around and it felt very sad for a moment until we started to laugh about it. There was hardly anybody there. I think I remember Brian Stokes Mitchell was there and I don't want to categorize him as a loser because he wasn't nominated for anything that year, he was just there. And I was like, "Oh here we are and nobody's here and it feels a little sad." [laughs]
Stokes was a Tony winner, but he had also famously lost a Tony for "Ragtime" so he at least could feel your pain.
Most people can feel the pain. But the truth is that a few years go by and you just are so happy that you were nominated. You get to have the words "Tony Award" by your name for the rest of your life, so I'm very grateful for all that "Jane Eyre" has done for me.
Earlier in your career, you also had a great deal of success writing pop music, like "Next Time I Fall" which was a #1 hit for Peter Cetera & Amy Grant. How did you transition into writing theater music? Had that been your plan all along?
I had grown up loving pop music and musical theater. My parents loved musical theater so the scores of "West Side Story" and "Sound of Music" and "My Fair Lady" were always playing in the background and my love of the Beatles and Beach Boys and pop music really just meshed into that. I made my career with pop music for many years, but I was always writing musicals in the background, musicals that were never produced. Then I had written a pop musical that we had put on in LA in the 90's -
What was that show?
It was called "Greetings from Venice Beach." It actually starred Pamela Adlon, and Katey Sagal was in a later version of the show. It was sort of a rock musical that took place on the Venice Beach boardwalk and in fact I am still working on it til this day and wanna get it out into the world. I never stop working on my shows. This was the first time I collaborated with Jay Gruska, who's an Emmy-nominated television writer and who also I collaborated with on "Being Earnest" which we did at TheatreWorks.
Later when I saw "Les Miserables" I was struck by the majesty of it and the sets and the look and the feel of the show and that they had taken a public domain novel and musicalized it. I wondered if I could do that, if I had the skillset; it was really a wonderment. I chose "Jane Eyre" sort of randomly. I looked through some novels and thought "It's about a strong woman and it has a relatively uplifting ending and I think I'd like to try and see if I can do this." So I just started on my own working on it and then by happenstance I was introduced to John Caird after I'd completed the demo. I really I feel like it was a stroke of luck that he was attracted to the project and that relationship was formed and that's really led to the career that I'm having.
You've now worked with John Caird a lot. How did you originally connect with him?
I didn't have any Broadway connections. I was a pretty successful pop songwriter who had a love of musicals and I'd written my first draft of "Jane Eyre." When I was doing the demo, I was working with a woman named Sally Dworsky, a pop singer I've worked with my whole career. At the time she was understudying Eponine in the touring production of "Les Miz" so I went to see her in the production and I was knocked out. She was doing my demo, and then she had some of the cast members of "Les Miz" come in and sing on it, and one of them was Anthony Crivello who ended up being our Rochester in Toronto. He came in at the very end of the process - he wasn't even Rochester on the demo, he was a servant. He said, "Hey, my friend John Caird should hear this. He might like it." And so Anthony put me in touch with John, who happened to be in LA. We talked on the phone, he invited me over to his rented house and he sat in his back yard with a red pencil correcting my spelling in the script [laughs], and saying things like "Well, this is American; this isn't English. This is not 19th century; this is 20th century." And he basically said "Look, I would work on the show with you if I could direct it and write the book." And of course my jaw dropped, and I went "Okay, that works for me!" I was just amazed and thrilled, and John is like my brother now. We have done multiple shows together, he is one of my closest friends, and I've been blessed to work with these great artists. You know, when I saw "Les Miz" I said to myself "If I could only work with this creative team..." and ten years after I said that, I was on Broadway working with essentially the same creative team, which was just unbelievable to me.
This is the world premiere of "Pride and Prejudice." Any plans yet for taking the show elsewhere after the TheatreWorks run?
My plan is always to start the shows at TheatreWorks or other great regional theaters like Chicago Shakespeare where I started "Sense and Sensibility" and to bring them to the world. What I've decided to do in the next few years is explore the idea of capturing the shows on film and streaming them. We've done this with "Emma" which as you know we did a production of here in 2007 and again in 2015. There was also a production at The Old Globe in 2011, but "Emma" really wasn't getting the regional theater life that I'd hoped. The show had been very successful, very well-received both critically and at the box office, but it wasn't getting productions. So I decided that I was going to do this crazy thing and film the show, on a stage, without an audience and just see what happened. I did that last year and the show is available to stream on Amazon and iTunes and also on a site called streamingmusicals.com. Now there's a production happening at Chicago Shakespeare, there's three productions happening over the summer, there's a production in Santa Barbara. What I'm discovering is by launching shows and allowing people to watch them on their computer, television, phone or wherever people stream things these days that we are creating a new audience for theater. We can now share "Emma" with people all over the world, and in fact, people are watching "Emma" all over the world and are now familiar with the production that started at TheatreWorks. In fact, many TheatreWorks supporters were producers and investors of this stream of "Emma" that has now gone out into the world.
So I'm planning on doing that with most of my shows, including "Pride and Prejudice." What we do with these streams is really a very cool technique. We shoot them with three HD cameras, but we edit them like a film so that you see that you're watching a show on a stage, we're not hiding that fact, but it's more of a cinematic experience. And - before we get angry cards and letters - we are not doing this to replace live theater, we're actually doing it to create more live productions of that show. We're trying to create a world where more people can experience theater. There might be a younger generation that may experience that theater on their device, that might be all they ever do, and that's at least better than never having seen the show at all. But what we really believe is happening is that artistic directors are seeing these streams and going "Hey, this is a great show for my theater." And that's what we want. So that's my hope with "Pride and Prejudice," that after we do this production we capture it and share it with the world and create many productions for years to come.
You know, I found a recording online of Brian d'Arcy James singing the title song from "Emma" and it's gorgeous. I've never seen the show and I thought, "Wow, I'd really like to see that show."
And now you can. Like if people say "Hey, I've never seen "Emma" - well in the past it only played in this theater for a month and unless you lived in this part of the world, you'd have no chance to see it. Now I can say "Just go to your computer next time you have a free two hours and watch 'Emma.'" And it really looks and sounds good, and it really is the show.
And I think it's a good thing for theater artists because we're also trying to establish a new pay scale to give theater artists residuals and royalties the way film and television artists get royalties, something that they can sustain themselves with. So many artists in our community do a show that we love, but then they go back to their teaching job or another job. That may not change, and it's all well and good, but maybe there's a supplemental income that can be received from acting in a piece at TheatreWorks, acting somewhere in Chicago, in Arizona, something that will continue and bring an actor or a designer or a director new income from theater, after the show is over. Wouldn't that be something?
What a great idea!
Yeah, check out streamingmusicals.com. This is what we're doing!
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's world premiere production of "Pride and Prejudice" runs December 4th 2019 through January 4th 2020 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1301 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, CA. For further information or to order tickets visit theatreworks.org or call (650) 463-1960.